Council to consider shift to automated garbage collection

The Idaho Falls City Council is considering buying automated trucks, similar to the one in this photo, for residential garbage collection. An automated system would require residents to place their trash in standardized waste containers. The most common type is a 96-gallon rolling container, with the option of a smaller container for residents who generate less trash. Getty Images

The Idaho Falls City Council is considering buying automated trucks for residential garbage collection, replacing the two-man crews that perform the task today.

Council members will weigh the higher labor costs and injury risks of the manual-collection system against the higher cost — $40,000 more per truck — of the trucks needed for an automated system to serve the city’s 20,700 residential customers.

Preliminary study results are expected to be shared with the council later this month. The study is under the direction of Marc Rogoff, project director with SCS Engineers, one of the largest solid-waste consulting firms in the U.S. The study was launched in February, at a cost of $42,100.

The study is looking into the feasibility of an automated trash-collection system, as well as costs and potential adjustments to garbage rates, Rogoff said.

“I think (residents) have concerns about how that would affect their service,” said Chris Fredericksen, director Public Works. “Right now, they have a very comprehensive service that is provided by the Sanitation Department. Other than some size restrictions and some weight restrictions, if it’s out there we generally pick it up.”

An automated system would require residents to place their trash in standardized waste containers. The most common type is a 96-gallon rolling container, with the option of a smaller container for residents who generate less trash. Residents with smaller containers would pay less than those with larger ones, Fredericksen said.

If the City Council moves ahead with automated collection, Fredericksen said the city will work to make alternatives available for garbage that can’t be collected by the new trucks.

“There are just some things that would not fit in those 96-gallon bins,” he said. “We would hope to keep a similar level of service for those patrons. We would try to factor that in so that they do have the same service that they did before the auto-load analysis — if it’s implemented.”

The specialized garbage bins cost around $50 a piece, Fredericksen said.

“Generally, how that’s done, is the city owns those carts,” he said. “They would be part of the rate as an adjustment.”

The city employs eight full-time workers to pickup garbage by hand, Fredericksen said in an email. The starting hourly wage is $14.84.

But those jobs take a toll on workers’ health, Fredericksen said.

“You’ve got people who are on the back of a truck every day in all weather … and then manually loading that garbage,” he said. “We do have a lot of employees that are exposed to the possibility for accidents.”

Once the study is presented, Councilman Ed Marohn said he will make his decision based on a cost-benefit analysis.

“My two goals would be to look at the cost savings to the city and also the reduction of medical and workman’s comp,” he said. “All the preliminaries indicate that we would save money, and that was the reason the council approved the study.”

One of the biggest upsides of an automated system is saving money on labor costs, Marohn said, particularly on workman’s compensation claims by garbage haulers injured on the job.

“It’s a hard job,” Marohn said. “They suffer the highest percentage of back problems and workman’s comp issues.”

Since 2009, there have been 65 workman’s compensation claims filed by Department of Sanitation employees, Human Resources Director Melanie Marsh wrote in an email.

The garbage haulers may not have to be laid off, Marohn said, because shifting to the new system would “take years of transition.”

Councilman Thomas Hally acknowledged that waste materials such as tree limbs may not be compatible with an automated system. But the system used today, which allows trash bags to be placed on the curb, also comes with drawbacks.

“Sometimes, dogs tear them open, and you have trash flowing around,” he said.

Pocatello transitioned to automated pickup some 20 years ago after a successful pilot project that involved 1,400 residents. Pocatello Sanitation Superintendent Randy Allen said that city’s experience with automated pickup has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The first round of comments before we put the carts out were pretty negative,” Allen said. “Then, after the study, when we surveyed the 1,400 (pilot-program participants,) we got overwhelming support for the program. A lot of people didn’t want to give the carts back.”

“It’s definitely a transition, but it’s not insurmountable,” he said.

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